Everyone you meet is a sum of all the things that have happened to him or her over a lifetime. This personal history affects the way people treat themselves and others, particularly in romantic relationships. So it’s an ingenious idea for Bernice L. McFadden to start her love story Loving Donovan by detailing the childhood and adolescence of her two protagonists, Donovan and Campbell.
The only problem is, we spend too much time knowing them separately and not enough knowing them as a couple, so that when the novel hits its emotional climax, it’s not as shattering as it could be. That doesn’t mean that getting to know McFadden’s characters isn’t in itself a great pleasure. Both of the main characters are richly drawn and convincing as human beings. Campbell is the child of a broken marriage, who has watched her father nearly destroy her mother with his faithlessness. Nevertheless, she becomes curious about boys, and, as a teenager, becomes pregnant.
Donovan’s parents also have split up, due in no small part to his domineering grandmother, Grammy, who constantly persuaded Donovan’s father Solomon to try and “break” his strong-willed wife. His controlling behavior drives her away, and Donovan and Solomon go to live with Grammy. That’s where Donovan meets Clyde, a neighborhood pedophile whose abuse of Donovan will mar him for the rest of his life.
The first two-thirds of the novel, which deal with the individual stories of Campbell and Donovan, are by far the best. We see not only how they became the kind of adults that they did, but we also see that their lives overlapped in small but important ways, making it seem almost inevitable that they would find each other. McFadden also creates memorable characters in these early sections, the most indelible of whom is Campbell’s aunt Luscious, a strong, hot-tempered woman who loves Campbell but hides her own painful secrets.
When Campbell and Donovan get older and make their way toward each other, the book continues to build on their characters, showing how Campbell finds salvation in art and how Donovan finds all of his romantic relationships tainted both by the memory of Clyde’s abuse and by Grammy’s controlling efforts to keep Donovan with her.
The book sort of loses its way, though, when the two become a romantic couple. In that section, we see how profoundly the relationship affects Campbell and, though we learn some of what’s going through Donovan’s head, his role becomes smaller and smaller. When the book reaches its conclusion, we get no clue about how Donovan feels about his actions. There’s nothing to indicate what makes this relationship so special to him – why this one would be singled out over all the others he’s had.
Without that perspective, Loving Donovan isn’t completely satisfying. However, there is so much to admire about the novel that it’s possible to forgive the unsatisfactory conclusion. McFadden’s characters – particularly her women – are so vivid that most readers will just be grateful that they exist and overlook the book’s shortcomings.